Update: added some things to the weapons list.
Symbols, Agreements & BeliefWe all live in fear. Fear of living in a different universe from the one we actually live in. In the universe we live in, there is only perfection, harmony. Everything is art, everything is music. Everything, even pain, suffering, loneliness, war and death. There are no mistakes, no accidents and no coincidences. The world, just as it is, is heaven. Each of us is an artist and prophet in the unfolding masterpiece. Life is your paint and canvas. Symbols, agreements and beliefs are the tools and brushes with which you choose your colors and place your strokes.
We learn to use these tools from our parents, teachers, peers and life experiences. You can make sense of what I've written because of these learnings, because you agree that the words have a certain meaning. We each learn countless words, symbols and concepts and agree to give them certain meanings that we use to understand the world. Some of these refer to real things in our experience, while some of them refer to ideas that exist only in our minds.
As tools, we can use them to create science, art and even magic, however symbols are not the pure experiences they refer to. "Sitting in a chair" is not the experience of actually sitting in a chair, and "art" is not actually the experience of viewing a particular painting. When we believe that symbols are truth, we give them a life of their own, the tools become the user. Our accumulated knowledge becomes a wall of fog and noise, blinding and deafening us to the truth of ourselves and everything in our experience.
The Road to HellThe path to hell starts with a single step. That step is judgment. We learn to judge from a young age. Naturally, children tend to explore and create, to seek pleasure and avoid pain. However, we learn from others; our parents, teachers, peers, pastors, etc, that when we do what they want, when we are the person they want us to be, we get rewarded with attention, praise, affection and things. When we don't, we're punished with rejection, anger, ridicule and even physical violence. We seek their attention to see ourselves, to learn who we are and what we can do in life, but out of fear of punishment and fear of not being rewarded, we accept their judgments and deny the very thing we sought.
Fear begets fear and judgment begets judgment. We learn to judge everything and everyone, ourselves most of all. Good and bad, beautiful and ugly, fat and thin, smart and dumb, perfect and imperfect, valuable and worthless. Our thoughts and words become weapons which we use against ourselves and others. We judge out of fear, in order to try to control things so our fears don't come true. Judgments are always one-sided agreements, and in our effort to control we end up doing the same thing over and over, either giving and serving while getting little back, or trying to take and manipulate while giving little to nothing in return. The imbalance generally continues until the person either snaps from giving too much, or others snap from being imposed upon; there is no peace in hell.
The War of the HeartThe path to heaven also begins with a single step. That step is awareness. By becoming aware of when you are judging, you can decide to take a different step. This is where the real fight begins, and I suggest taking people you care about as opponents.
Leashes & WallsThe first thing I usually notice that tells me I'm in for a fight is what I call 'leashing'. Leashing is one-sided agreements in action. Either the other person will try to control or manipulate you in some way, or they may try to hand you control (ie throwing themselves at you), or you may find yourself putting yourself at their feet. In the first two cases, I politely decline to either accept control or being controlled. In the last case, I fight to break the leash.
When you follow any leash, at its end you find what I call a 'wall'. I experience them like a solid barrier, and they're like a felt experience of the denial of self and the unwillingness to experience the pain of that denial. I used to smash into them quite painfully, but now when I realize I've hit a wall, I stop and stare it down. I'll look it over, look for a way through or around, chisel at it, smash it, punch it, kick it, ram it, and fight through it until it breaks. Ultimately, getting through the wall means acknowledgment; a full recognition of the judgments which you accepted into your identity. In my experience, the usual way to get to that point either involves yelling or crying, or both. When it comes to heart issues, it seems to be inevitable, although some people seem to change more easily than others, and it probably depends on a lot of things.
Weapons of WarThe fight out of hell is extremely difficult, and for most people (myself included) might be insurmountable without tools to aid in the fight. Here I present a list of agreements which have helped me to survive the battles thus far and to see truth where I might otherwise have been blind.
Focus Your Awareness: A natural consequence of judgment is that our awareness is constricted and fixated on a few limited things at the exclusion of everything else. You stop seeing, you stop hearing, you may literally close your eyes or be unable to look at what's going on. Simply by opening your eyes and looking at what's in front of you can make a big difference on whether you're able to fight or not. It may help to start by focusing your attention on random nonthreatening things to help you climb out of your head. This also means paying attention to your own feelings. They can tell you a lot about what's out of whack in your life. In Zen, they say that the path is always right in front of you. Can you hear the birds chirping? Can you see the trees sway in the wind? There is the path.
Put Your Heart on the Line: Putting your heart on the line means saying and doing exactly what you mean to, or at least refraining from saying or doing what you don't mean. This also means being honest with and about your feelings, even when you feel like shit. When things get tough, you may very well have to slow down a whole lot in order to be able to do this well.
Start With What's Most Important: Figure out what the most important thing to do is, and when you're sure of it, do that. Then figure out what the next most important thing is, and when you're sure of it, do that. Repeat until finished. The hard part is being sure. A trusted second (or third) opinion can be valuable here.
Do Your Best: You will screw up. You will blow up, you will crash, and you will have days where only the dog can understand you. It's an absolutely necessary part of all this. All you can really do is do your best, which will vary depending on how you're feeling, your health and your zodiac sign. If you've done your best, you have nothing to blame yourself for.
Take Nothing Personally: Everyone lives in their own experiential world. If someone else judges, ridicules, blames or tries to fight you, that comes from their own fear and pain, it has nothing to do with you. Let responsibility fall where it belongs; take responsibility for your own emotions, and to others the same. I can also point you to the beautiful Litany of Gendlin.
Question Every Assumption: Curiosity and doubt are some of the most powerful tools in my arsenal. If you don't ask questions, you won't find answers. Ask good questions long enough, and good answers find you. It's doubt of the self that produces judgment, and likewise it's doubt of your judgments that sets you free of them.
Know Nothing: Give yourself permission not to know. It's perfectly ok to say "I don't know". This is actually probably a large part of how I keep my sanity these days; I answer most questions with "Hell if I know!". Also give yourself permission to not know who you are, or who other people are either. Existing in this universe means continuous change and evolution. Nothing is as solid or unchanging as we experience our concepts to be.
No Merit: There is no good or bad, right or wrong. Everything is perfect, and nothing you do gains you (or loses you) any points towards everything. You do what you do because you want to, simple.
Throw Paint: When all else fails, throw paint. Do whatever, say whatever. Usually works out ok, as long as you've got nothing else.
The Stick: This is one of my favorite koans, and although it's rather subtle it speaks for itself:
Yamaoka Tesshu, as a young student of Zen, visited one master after another. He called upon Dokuon of Shokoku.
Desiring to show his attainment, he said: "The mind, Buddha, and sentient beings, after all, do not exist. The true nature of phenomena is emptiness. There is no relaization, no delusion, no sage, no mediocrity. There is no giving and nothing to be received."
Dokuon, who was smoking quietly, said nothing. Suddenly he whacked Yamaoka with his bamboo pipe. This made the youth quite angry.
"If nothing exists," inquired Dokuon, "where did this anger come from?"
Dying to LiveProbably the biggest disappointment I've ever had was finding out just how difficult, painful and tedious it is to fight your way out of hell. Pain, misery, fear, anger, hatred, confusion, headaches, rinse, repeat. There's occasional glimpses of love and freedom, but just enough to frustrate you near to death. Most days it's like crawling in a barrel and rolling down a rocky hill, and feels about like dying pretty much every time. Up and down, back and forth, and I think I've forgotten what sleep is. I think the only reason I'm still able to fight is because I started seeing other people fight right along with me. It's the first time I can recall that I've gotten back exactly what I've given.
ReferencesThe Toltec Wisdom Series (1, 2, 3)
Positioning Opens Up the Lines of Sight for the Whole Situation and Very Brief Psychotherapy by James P. Gustafson
Zen Meditation in Therapy by C. Alexander Simpkins & Annelen M. Simpkins
Trances People Live by Stephen Wollinsky